Thursday, 23 March 2017
China is not well known for its wine – which, of course, means nothing. Just because something’s not well known doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who knows it well. Don’t even try and dismiss the wines of an oenologically-challenged country – Greenland, say, or Bangla Desh. Because there’s always some smart-arse pops up, saying “How dare you dismiss their wines!
“Obviously you haven’t tried tried Hiffen-Liffen, that rare blend of Triffen and Whiffen, let alone the extraordinary Mujid-Pujid or the languid Mesut Ozil.
“You really are displaying your ignorance. Presumably you’ve never even been there! Do you just buy your wines from the supermarket?” Well, largely, yes.
But fortunately, a supermarket is now allowing me to satisfy this particular smidgen of curiosity – because here is Changyu’s Noble Dragon, China’s mass-market red wine, being sold in Sainsbury’s.
Immediately, a bottle of Noble Dragon presents some talking points. That irritating flange/lip/thing at the neck of the bottle, which means that some corkscrews won’t work on it. An odd little plastic imitation of a wax seal, stuck onto the top of the cork, which doesn’t actually seal anything. And pictograms everywhere, which for all I know might be either pairing recommendations, or hazardous liquid warnings.
But at the same time it’s extraordinary how they’ve picked up all the clichés of traditional European wine labelling. There’s the drypoint-like image of the “chateau” in Yantai. There’s the use of Germanic and script typefaces. There’s the reassurances of heritage (‘Since 1892…”) and quality. “Eighty years of quality assurance” – sounds like the Prudential.
There’s a little map of China on the back label, because, of course, we should know exactly where in China it comes from, in case we expected something from a neighbouring appellation.
And could it be deliberate, to reinforce the distance, the otherness of this wine, that, given the wealth and resources of the company, the English on the back label is surprisingly poor? “It is round and smooth in mouth, acting elegantly as a full bodied wine.”
It has, as they used to say of actor Karl Malden, quite a nose. It reminds me of those mornings after, when one had to face the fragrance of a full ashtray. Then there is some initial cherryish action going on, but it’s quite shallow in flavour. Finally there’s a very dry finish, followed by quite a bitter aftertaste.
This is the biggest-selling wine in the world; in 2015, it sold 450 million bottles, more than the entire output of Rioja. Which, frankly, I would prefer to possess.
This could be a cheap wine from anywhere, really, although a cheap wine from anywhere would give you more change out of a tenner. Noble Dragon gives you none. Which means its curiosity value is about £4.01, the amount you’re paying on top of a similar cheap Chilean Cabernet.
Given the success rate of supermarkets at selecting wines from anywhere else, there is no reason to assume this is representative of the quality Chinese wine can achieve. But at least my curiosity has been resolved. Mind that dead cat.
Thursday, 16 March 2017
As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.
More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.
After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.
All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.
All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.
Thursday, 9 March 2017
The University of California has acquired the archive of Jancis Robinson; forty years of wine tasting notes, her travel notebooks, notes on Chateau Latour, invitations from the Queen, personal correspondence and published articles. A feature in the San Francisco Chronicle explained the acquisition by saying that “Robinson invented ways to be a wine writer that had never existed before”,
This is clearly also true of Sediment, which similarly invented ways of being a wine writer which had never existed before, viz. while knowing little to nothing about wine.
So perhaps there is some former Poly, or one of the poorly supported council libraries, which would be interested in acquiring the Sediment archive?
At the heart of the Sediment archive is a treasure trove of crumpled supermarket receipts. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the authors’ wine-buying habits; they document the seesawing prices of discounted supermarket wines, and provide historians with precise documentation of the dates of “25% off six bottles” offers.
The receipts record the pitifully low sums which the authors regularly spent on their wines, illustrated further by a marked-up list from Majestic, a booklet from Lidl and some sort of leaflet which came through the door from Waitrose.
The archive pinpoints increasingly hard-to-find retailers such as Threshers, Nicolas and Oddbins, and tracks the relentless rise of CJ’s pricepoint from £5 to the heady heights of £6.99, while the sorry state of wine deliveries is recorded by a collection of “While you were out…” cards.
There are, sadly, no notes on Chateau Latour; if there were, they would probably be “Can’t afford it” from PK and, from CJ, “What?” But then, the Jancis Robinson archive probably lacks notes on Sainsbury’s Basic, “reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party”.
And here are all of the other original Sediment tasting notes, in handwriting whose deteriorating legibility provides confirmation that the authors didn’t just consider wines; they consumed them.
There are fascinating similarities; Jancis’s notes on Latour employ the descriptive term “open”, which Sediment also use, having decided it was helpful to “open” most of their wines.
One can see in her notes on Latour comparisons like “red fruits”, “cheese” and “violets”. Sediment’s points of comparison reflect more of a quintessential Englishness, referring to such evocative national products as Airwick, Flash and Copydex, in notes such as “acrid, nasal – like crushed insects in Brasso”.
Sediment’s invitation from the Queen sadly seems to have gone astray. However, there is one from the Prime Minister, a moment at which PK believed he would achieve new status in wine drinking, only to be offered a glass of Campo Viejo.
And, perhaps distinguishing itself from the Jancis archive yet again, the Sediment archive does contain an invitation from ASDA, to a tasting event at which CJ “sat bathed in mute and baffled dread.” Which could explain the absence from the archive of any other invitation from any other supermarket.
Here finally is the original manuscript for the Sediment book. It makes fascinating reading, with particular reference to the amendments required by lawyers, including exchanges over the potentially libellous use of words such as “emetic”. The archive allows scholars to identify the retailers that the authors were not allowed to describe as “dreary” and “charmless”, and the producer whose wine could not be described as “rust remover”.
What will students find, asked the San Francisco Chronicle, when they encounter the Jancis documents? “I think it will be an interesting snapshot into where wine was,” Robinson says.
Sediment already know where wine was – it was in the bottle, then it was in the glass, then it was, somewhat briskly, gone – but their archive offers an alternative snapshot of everyday wine drinking, and a record of its cost which will be of particular interest to their wives.